They cheerfully rode the New York City subway uptown: three Jewish women in their late 50s or early 60s, bundled up in heavy coats decorated in peace buttons. Millions of protesters in 600 cities around the world were rallying against a looming war in Iraq, and these New Yorkers did not intend to be left out.
Members of a half-dozen left-leaning Jewish organizations assembled at the Workmen’s Circle building in midtown Manhattan for bagels before the protest Saturday and marched together to the rally site at 49th Street and First Avenue, near the United Nations.
Support for the Palestinian cause was evident at the rally, though far less than pessimists had predicted. Jewish groups, for their part, kept their focus determinedly on opposition to an impending war in Iraq.
Many of those who showed up at the Jewish assembly point looked as if they had been at many other rallies against other wars. Although the main rally was peopled principally by hundreds of thousands of young protesters, there were also thousands of gray heads and wizened faces braving the freezing weather with “No War With Iraq” buttons proudly pinned on their coats.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of Philadelphia’s Shalom Center, joined the Jewish contingent halfway to the rally, looking a bit like a 1960s version of a wonder-rabbi with his long, flowing white beard, rainbow-colored skullcap and prayer shawl. He had come straight from Kennedy Airport, after addressing an anti-war conference of church leaders in Rome.
Former New York City mayoral candidate Ruth Messinger, a featured speaker at the large rally, addressed the Jewish contingent before it set out. “I have never seen a demonstration this big or this wide,” said Messinger, who heads the American Jewish World Service. “It’s an extraordinary, exciting event.”
At an interfaith prayer service before the rally, Messinger read a Hebrew prayer for peace. At the rally itself she quoted the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
The main rally was not a 1960s-style love fest, however. Many demonstrators waved signs with images of President Bush daubed with a Hitler mustache or accompanied by messages such as, “Traitor, Imposter, Crook, Rich Man’s Poodle.” One young woman in a black-and-white kaffiyeh sported a sticker of Bush with a Pinocchio nose that said: “Bush Knew.”
The protest movement had come under attack for anti-Israel leanings days before, when planners of a rally in San Francisco denied a speaking slot to Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine. Lerner had publicly criticized one of the rally’s co-sponsors, International Answer, for its anti-Israel rhetoric.
When the San Francisco rally took place, however — on Sunday, a day after other cities’ rallies, to avoid conflict with Chinese New Year festivities — several rabbis were on the program. One, Rabbi Pam Frydman Baugh of Or Shalom Jewish Community, a Renewal synagogue in San Francisco, greeted a pre-rally interfaith prayer vigil with greetings in Hebrew and Arabic. The rally also featured Muslim, Christian and Buddhist clerics.
While praying for peace for Israelis and Palestinians, Frydman Baugh focused most of her attention on Iraq, praying that Iraqi civilians can “escape the violence perpetrated by Western military forces, and are free from the violence perpetrated by their own people.”
In Germany, the Berlin Association Against Anti-Semitism accused the German peace movement of antisemitism following that city’s anti-war rally, which was attended by an estimated 500,000 protesters.
“From the start of the Berlin demonstration, it became clear that groups were involved whose worldview includes nationalism, racism and anti-Semitism,” stated a letter, signed by approximately 100 scholars, Jewish religious and communal leaders, and activist groups from Germany and abroad.
“Revisionist banners and anti-Israel chants were heard. Israel was depicted as pulling the strings in the Iraq conflict; its politicians were cursed as ‘child killers,’ and a few flags of the Islamic extremist Hamas and Hezbollah groups were waved,” the letter stated.
But in New York, Jews stood side by side with an estimated 100,000 to 400,000 fellow protesters, who lined New York’s East Side in wintry weather to hear speakers ranging from Messinger to South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Amit Mashiah, co-founder of “Courage to Refuse,” a group of Israeli reservists who refuse to serve in the territories, also spoke at the New York rally. “If Bush really wants to spread democracy and peace around the world today he can start with Israel,” he said. “Everyone can learn from our experience that violence doesn’t solve conflict.”
Mashiah said that although he believes terrorism needs to be condemned and terrorists brought to justice, “to really eliminate terror you have to deal with the reason for hatred. You cannot get rid of terror just by force.”
Speaking to a reporter afterward, Mashiah dismissed the anti-Israel sentiment in the anti-war movement as unimportant. “I oppose every movement that is against Israel’s right for existence,” he said.
A featured speaker at the San Francisco rally was Rabbi Stephen Pearce, the senior spiritual leader of the Reform Congregation Emanu-El, the largest and most influential synagogue in Northern California. He was criticized by some for appearing at a rally whose sponsors included groups known to be hostile to Israel.
But he offered another Jewish voice to those urging Bush to refrain from attacking Iraq. “Jewish tradition teaches of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving thy fellow creatures, and drawing them near to the rule of law,” he said.